09/20/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

The Faulty Conclusion of Education Reform

We must address all the factors that affect achievement, not just the easy ones.

One of my students completed an impressive science project. The student set up a study to measure the effects of different variables on plant growth. The student planted the same kind of seeds in several containers using the same soil and varied other conditions such as the amount of sunlight, water, and fertilizer. The outcomes ranged from plants flourishing to plants quickly dying.

The student concluded that the soil was the factor that led to the variations in plant growth.
Do you agree with the student's conclusion?

When I questioned the student, the student stated a previously held belief that soil has the biggest impact on plant growth regardless of other factors. I pointed out that the soil was a constant. Thus, logically, even though soil impacts plant growth, it is incorrect to conclude that the soil is the main factor responsible for the varied results.

Paradigm shift can be difficult. The student had a hard time accepting that something else could have a significant impact on plant growth, even in the face of data that clearly demonstrated otherwise.

Does this sound familiar?

Sadly, as a teacher, it does. This flawed line of thinking is playing out on a national level when it comes to education "reform."

Teachers are the soil and they are being blamed for all the calamities that befall the institute of public education while other factors are being completely dismissed or ignored. This continues even in the face of data that points to numerous factors (not just the teacher) that impact student achievement.

Let's assume this conclusion being accepted by many is correct: the teachers (specifically unionized teachers with due process rights or tenure) are the only variable worth considering because all the other variables are miniscule by comparison (flawed premise). If we accept this premise then we can conclude that there would be an inverse relationship between the number of unionized, tenured teachers teaching at a school and academic achievement.

When we look at testing data we see a wide range of outcomes related to school and student performance. In the past few years, many schools have experienced enormous growth related to test scores (a flawed measure when used by itself, but that's a different discussion) while others have languished with little or no growth.

If the premise of the "reformers" is correct then why do we see schools with unionized, tenured teachers demonstrating high academic achievement?

Could it be that other factors have a greater impact on academic achievement?

What we find is that the data demonstrates that achievement is more closely tied to other factors such as socio-economic situations, parent/community involvement, language proficiency, etc.

I am not saying it is beyond fixing or that we should somehow blame people for the reality of their circumstances, but why are we blaming the teachers?

At best, I think it is rooted in misperceptions of most teachers in the profession; at worst, it is based on an accomplishing a political agenda using children as a means to an end.

The misconception of many well intended reformers is based a misinterpretation of the factors that affect achievement.

The reason for blaming teachers comes from the premise "the teacher has the biggest impact on student achievement" but as Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute points out the rub is that the research refers to in-school influence.

"The assertion results from a careless glide from "teachers being the most important in-school influence," to teachers being the most important influence overall. But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect."

Maybe many are blaming the teachers because it is politically easier then addressing the other problems or maybe it is the result of policy makers having little or no actual teaching experience (studying education at an elite school or being successful in the business world is not a substitute for actual teaching experience). I think it is both and while I know many have positive intentions, this will not solve the enormous challenge we face (we all know where the road paved with positive intentions leads).

Many will point to charter schools or schools such as KIPP to support the conclusion it must be the teachers. The reason these schools succeed is not because they don't have unionized teachers; it is because they have an invested, committed community and they have found ways to address the issues I mentioned above. Those issues are not ignored or dismissed.

This was vividly displayed in Waiting for Superman as parents and students vied for coveted spots in the schools of their choice. Do you think the parents and students who went through that process were supportive and effective partners in the education of their child? Of course they are! Predictably though, the movie perpetuates the stereo-type through their narrative that schools are failing because of the teachers who have due process rights.

Charter schools have created ways to overcome the other barriers to achievement such as after-school tutoring, Saturday study halls, mentoring, etc. These ideas should be applied to all schools but they only work if there is buy in from the entire community (staff, parents, and students).

The bottom line is that many factors contribute to the success of the charter schools highlighted by the reformers.

That being said, I want to be clear. Teachers are an important factor (just not the biggest) in academic achievement and we must include issues related to improving teachers (reliable, effective evaluations, continued training, access to resources, etc.) if we hope to improve learning for all students. Like any other profession there is a wide range of teacher aptitudes, thus there are some teachers who need to improve or find another profession.

However, if we continue to focus on demonizing teachers in general and holding them "accountable" for factors that are beyond their control then we will never be successful in our attempt to revolutionize our education system. We have to address all the issues that affect achievement, not just the easy ones or the ones that accomplish some other agenda. Our kids deserve it and our nation requires it.